Windrush – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, February 2018
West Yorkshire Playhouse was packed for Phoenix Dance Theatre’s first performance from its current programme. Two short dances were followed by the world premiere of its Artistic Director’s latest work, Windrush: Movement of the People.
For me, with no background in dance, the evening was highly enjoyable, sometimes moving and often thought-provoking. ‘MaybeYes Maybe, Maybe No Maybe’, choreographed by Aletta Collins with composition by Street Furniture Music, sets a playful tone within a central circle of light. Its centrepiece, a live microphone dangling over the dancers.
These dancers tease and challenge one another in a glorious interplay of movement and sound, their own amplified voices transformed by the score into ‘the beats and accents of a pulsing soundtrack’ (programme notes). Wearing black gym kit, they reminded me of kids messing around together. At one point, the circle of light shrinks, the microphone disappears and a more serious, sensuous duet is performed, suggesting the changing emotions of adolescence.
“Exuberant but pained”
This imaginative, light-hearted piece is a challenge for dancers, demanding vocal dexterity and impeccable timing as well as physical strength, grace and dexterity. It was excellently performed by Natalie Alleston, Aaron Chaplin, Carmen Vazquez-Marfil, Michael Marquez and Sandrine Monin with impeccable timing. Very satisfying.
‘Shadows’ is a darker piece focused on family and choreographed by Christopher Bruce. Arvo Part’s score for violin and piano, played live, is a stirring and poignant companion to the choreography.
The initial image is sombre. Mother, father, son and daughter sit motionless at a bare table. When the daughter breaks away to claim centre stage with an exuberant but pained solo, the others remain still in striking contrast.
Moments of reflection are prompted throughout the work by juxtapositions of movement and stillness, speed and slowness, and the contrasting emotions of family members. And so acutely observed intricacies and sensitivities of family relationships are played out. The squaring-up duet between father and son ebbed and flowed between tension and tenderness. But a sense of sadness and loss is never far away. A highlight for me was the vulnerability of the mother figure as she is left alone to dance while the others freeze in tableau.
In the final moments we become aware of a faint glow from ‘outside’, off-stage. The family notices it too. One by one, they reluctantly take coats from the stand and put them on. They pick up suitcases and walk slowly away from home towards us, the audience. They have to leave home.
In an interview at Phoenix Dance Theatre, Christopher Bruce said: ‘In my dance the action can be read literally or metaphorically, within the intimacy of an insular family environment or on a more universal scale. I am happy to leave the audience to interpret the work individually.’
For me, it was deeply moving on both levels. Carlos J. Martinez, Sandrine Monin, Vanessa Vince-Pang and Prentice Whitlow performed with heartfelt sensitivity.
Performed in mid-20th century costume, it was also a fitting introduction to the main dance of the evening, Windrush: Movement of the People.
Seventy years ago, the ship SS Empire Windrush carried 492 Afro-Caribbean migrants, mostly from Jamaica, to London. Many of them had fought for Britain during World War 2. They were the first of the ‘Windrush Generation’, invited by the UK government to fill the labour shortage created by war losses. Like all migrants from the Commonwealth countries, they had been promised full settlement with good jobs and wages. They expected to be welcomed with metaphorical open arms. In fact, they were often met with hostility and racism.
In tribute to that generation, and particularly their music and dance which has influenced our culture so strongly, Sharon Watson has made this energetic, episodic work, for which she interviewed her own relatives and worked closely with composer, Christelle Listras. Her score, which is played live, blends calypso with British empirical tunes, jazz, gospel and with forms evolving from them. It was performed by all the dancers mentioned earlier, and Nafisha Baba and Maya Ogunnaike.
The set is a city of packing containers initially representing the ship at dock in the Caribbean, lit by a warm orange ‘sky’. Elated travellers, in shirts and ties or bright frocks, dance their hopes with swaying hips and loose elasticity to upbeat music. Those about to board the ship swank, the girl left behind is desolate.
The arrival in the UK under a harsh blue sky is cold and dark. Migrants move slowly in a line, trying to navigate themselves. They sit on their cases, look at their watches and are shunned by native women in white masks and Hilda Ogden ‘turbans’ at their net curtain windows. ‘You called and we came’ is a phrase repeated as our national anthem is sung.
Rejection is symbolised by these women, their featureless masks a barbed comment on the stereotypical idea of whites that ‘all blacks look alike’. It’s an interesting concept carried through the piece. When the Afro-Caribbeans make a home and party there, the single ‘white’ woman imitates their sinuous dance: her movement is clumsy, crude and ugly. Here’s reference to another stereotypical notion – that blacks make the best dancers. As an audience, we cannot fail to be aware that all roles are performed by a multi-ethnic company of dancers!
After the exuberance and sensuality of ‘party’, the action stops. Slowly, an older man walks through the frozen scene, now a flashback, and into church denoted by stained glass lighting. The ubiquitous white woman mocks the church setting at first. Her unmasking conveys the realisation that we are all human beings. takes off her mask and is repentant. She’s forgiven and accepted. There’s live gospel singing which leads to the final, joyous company dance accompanied by an eclectic mix of music. When I attended, the audience clapped along in rhythm, and some accepted the dancers’ invitation to join the dance onstage.
Sharon Watson has said: ‘I didn’t want the work to become a history lesson. It needs to be theatrical, to connect with the audience.’ As a heartfelt tribute to the endurance and the cultural contribution of the Windrush generation, it was marvelous and certainly connected with the audience. The standing ovation spoke for itself.
However, I had reservations about this as a dance-piece. Sometimes, messages were overstated, for example with the white woman at the party. The most potentially powerful symbol of overt rejection was when washing lines were hung with smalls bearing the phrase, ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. A shockingly clever idea in itself, its emotive effect was seriously diminished by a scene that was overlong and fussy.
If not entirely satisfied with the choreography of Windrush, I was entertained, educated and emotionally engaged by all three works, and most of the predominantly white audience loved them all. An elderly dapper man turned to me and sighed ‘Wonderful’, as he left his seat.
images: Richard Moran